de’ Medici Cucina San Diego
De’ Medici’s location allows it to draw business from local hotels and the convention center.
Great Cuisine Mixed with Personal Hospitality
By David Rottenberg
Life is full of change. Especially in the restaurant business. Sometimes, restaurants close their doors and go out of business before I even have an opportunity to visit. Even in the Gaslamp.
For example, Ingrid Croce, wife of the famous singer Jim Croce, who helped start the development of the Gaslamp by building a highly successful restaurant that venerated the memory of her late husband, eventually had to close and move to Hillcrest. Then, despite a history of offering wonderful food and entertainment for years, she eventually went out of business.
But, right across the street from Croce’s former location on Fifth Avenue, de’ Medici Cucina continues to serve Italian cuisine featuring recipes from both Northern and Southern Italy. Its owner, Sal Vitale came by my table to say, “Be sure to tell people that we celebrated our 21st anniversary here.” For that many years, Vitale’s restaurant has offered more than a generation of locals and visitors great cuisine mixed with personal hospitality. Always beautifully dressed in well tailored suits, Vitale loves to flit between tables to greet and chat with new and familiar faces.
De’ Medici’s location allows it to draw business from local hotels and the convention center. To attract the business, Vitale built a glass-enclosed meeting room that is equipped with audiovisual and other presentation capability, as well as with drapes to provide privacy.
That was part of a large renovation that really transformed the interior of the restaurant. For years, the interior was decorated with Michelangelo-like figures that gave it a Sistine Chapel-like feel. After the renovation, the walls are mirrored and the booths are new. Framed pictures of Vitale and others are set on booths’ arm rests. The wall to the meeting room is clear glass. The mirrors and clear glass make the dining room look much larger, until the drapes drop.
At least the open kitchen and the voice of Sinatra in the background remain unchanged.
There is also a large patio in front of the restaurant, for outdoor dining that feels more casual and lets diners enjoy the street parade.
Vitale has the ability to retain staff for years. Our server, for example, had worked there for over seven years, the general manager even longer. Even the chef had been there for ages.
Before ordering, the server brought garlic bread tightly wrapped in a napkin — two partially split rolls somewhat toasted and lightly covered with garlic flavor. The presentation and small portion surprised me but I munched on a roll while reviewing the menu.
The restaurant features pasta, seafood and steaks, accompanied by a range of antipasti, soups and salads. Calamari Fritti, fried baby calamari with a marinara sauce, is a good way to begin. The crisp clean texture of the calamari is exciting. Melanzane alla Parmagiana, grilled eggplant covered with cheese, also with marinara sauce, is a good alternative.
The Lobster Bisque has some seafood taste but was sadly lacking in lobster meat and had an overwhelming tomato taste. On the other hand, the Ceasar Salad is prepared tableside and the show is worthwhile.
There is an impressive list of seafood offered. The restaurant’s signature dish is Fresh Filet of Sole stuffed with lobster, crab and shrimp, then oven baked to a golden brown and topped with a parsley butter glaze. It is light and very tasty. Sea Bass Maremonte, fresh sea bass sautéed in extra virgin olive oil, garlic, and white wine, with mushrooms and marinara sauce on a bed of rice also is excellent.
Scallopini alla Marsala, sliced veal sautéed in marsala wine and mushroom sauce was disappointing. The portion was small, the meat squishy and its flavor was overwhelmed by an unidentifiable spice. Perhaps the chef had an off night. On the other hand, the rib eye steak, prime quality aged for 21 days, was perfectly prepared. Both dishes were served with a few strips of asparagus and baby carrots that were overly sweet.
Different pasta shapes — spaghetti, linguini, fettucinni, gnocchi — combine with different ingredients to create appealing flavors. Gnocchi Ponte Vecchio, named after that wonderful old bridge in Venice, features fresh potato dumplings in a delightful gorgonzola and pesto sauce.
There is a lengthy wine list with international labels. One or more wines in each category is available by the glass. Prices by the glass are moderate. By the bottle, prices are moderate to high. Menu prices are moderate to expensive. Perhaps high prices are needed to pay the high Gaslamp rents. Even parking is expensive. On Saturday night, it cost $15 to leave my car at the curb.
Happy 21st Anniversary, de’ Medici. Since 1995, you’ve fed and entertained hordes of happy diners. May your success continue.
De’ Medici is located at 815 Fifth Ave., in the Gaslamp. Call (619) 702-7228 for reservations and information. The restaurant is open for dinner nightly.
Tracy Borkum’s restaurant interiors are designed for interest, comfort and elegance.
The ‘Sister’ Restaurant
The old Kensington Grill reborn
By David Rottenberg
To achieve success, a company needs good leadership. After all, a company is really an collection of people working together to achieve a common goal. People need direction, someone at the helm who points to the path and who monitors progress, someone who can even change direction when such a move is necessary.
As a case in point, take the Kensington Grill. Kensington is a lovely part of San Diego, located just south of Highway 8, right off Interstate 15. This area, and its neighbor area Talmadge, are favorites of millenials and young executives. Family homes, many full of young children, dot the neighborhoods, punctuated by parks, schools and small restaurants.
Tracy Borkum ran the Kensington Grill for years. Located near a freeway exit, down the block from a movie theater that ran art movies, Kensington Grill offered a sophisiticated menu in a comfortable “neighborhood” setting.
But Borkum had changed as a restarauter. Borkum founded the Urban Kitchen Group and opened restaurants in San Diego and Orange County to offer Italian cuisine that is graced by fresh, seasonal California bounty. Adding to the quality of flavors, Borkum’s restaurant interiors are designed for interest, comfort and elegance. The company has gone into catering services, with menus that go beyond Italian cuisine to take on an “international” list of food choices. And, to tie it all together, she’s opened shops in some of her restaurants to sell there and online artwork, furniture, gift cards and an assortment of other items that are beautiful and unique.
Over a few years, Borkum developed location in Bankers Hill and Del Mar. She expanded to Irvine and Newport Beach. Some of her restaurants included the word “enoteca” in their names, showing an emphasis on wine as well as cuisine. She brought in top chefs to her locations to make sure that her menu choices were terrific.
And then there was the Kensington Grill. What to do? As a leader, she knew what to do — change it.
So Borkum redeveloped the location, literally changing it completely both externally and internally, to reopen last May as Cucina Sorella. She brought in Chef Daniel Wolinsky to run the kitchen. As part of his extensive international background, Chef Wolinksky worked in a three Michelin star restaurant in Modena Italy.
An outdoor patio runs along the length of the outside of the location for comfortable dining on cool evenings. The interior is seemingly divided into three sections. A “store” is in place near the cash registers on one side.The main dining area occupies the center. A feature wall divides the main dining area from the bar where meals are also served. The décor is homey and quaint. Tables occupy the center of the dining room and an upholstered banque runs along the walls. Lighting is moderate; fixtures are minimalist. Paisley type wall paper runs along the walls, along with wall paper filled with geometic shapes. Mirrors high on the walls lets diner facing them look back to see what is happening behind them.
The word “sorella” means “sister” in Italian. Cucina Sorella is the “sister” restaurant to the ones that preceeded it.
The menu, which changes seasonally, is small but select. Dishes are listed that may not be found in competing Italian eateries. Chef Wolinsky likes to play with shapes in creating pasta. His torchio is pasta shaped like the handle of a torch. It comes with seafood sausage, again unique, white corn and buratta. The triangoli are – what else – pasta triangles filled goat cheese, eggplant, fig, and almond served with a brown butter balsamic. Bucatini, like spaghetti but with a hole in the middle, can come with a meatball.
My favorite dish of the evening was the olive pappardelle. The noodles were wide,thick and hearty. The dish came with a lamb shoulder ragu that was meaty and tender, with lots of meat. Simply delicious.
One of the most popular side dishes is the potato gnocchi tots, crisp bits of good taste, served with house ketchup.
A more traditional meal might begin with antipasto. Formaggi + salumi (cheese and salami) choices are available to whet the appetite. Grilled calamari or grilled Sicilian meatballs (primi) could move the meal along, topped by slow roasted pork shoulder or a whole branzino from the sea.
Desserts include chocolate peanut butter ball, beautifully presented, panna cotta and gelato.
Wine makes everything go better. The wine menu lists vintages from the U.S. and Italy. Among the “reds” the barbera d’ asti is excellent and available by the glass.
Menu and wine prices are moderate, to encourage frequent visits. The cuisine is tasty and satisfying. The restaurant will undoubtedly be very successful. Borkum has done a good leadership job again. .
Cucina Sorella opens at 4 p.m. for dinner and is open every day but Monday. It is located at 4055 Adams Ave., just at the Adams offramp to I-15. Be forewarned that parking can be a problem. There is a free small parking lot on the corner and offstreet parking may be available. On its website, the restaurant suggests parking across the overpass near the public park. Or, it says, take Uber.
Whatever way you get there, an evening at Cucina Sorella will be rewarding. Call (619) 281-4014 for information and reservations.